TAIPEI - Taiwan's former president
Lee Teng-hui, known as "father of Taiwan's
democracy", faces prosecution on corruption and
money laundering charges. If convicted, the two
democratically elected former presidents of the
island will both have been disgraced. Lee's
successor, Chen Shui-bian, self-claimed "son of
Taiwan", is serving a 17-year term after being
found guilty on similar charges.
who became its first democratically elected leader
in 1988, is vilified as a traitor by the ruling
Kuomintang (KMT) he once headed, while Beijing
reviles him for his pro-independence and pro-Japan
stances. Unsurprisingly, the Taiwanese opposition
has been up in arms over Lee's indictment as soon
as it was announced on June 30. They say the
island's judiciary functions as the KMT's
bloodhound, and is chasing Lee to ensure a KMT
wins in the 2012 legislative
and presidential elections.
Taiwan's politics profoundly in the 12 years he
governed the island as president and KMT chairman.
His twin legacies are democratization and the
so-called "localization reform", a policy that led
to the shifting of power previously held by
mainland-born KMT cadre to people with local
These two processes put
Taiwan ever farther from mainland China. In the
later years of his presidency, Lee worked
increasingly toward practically achieving
Taiwanese independence. The combination of this
endeavor and his sympathy with imperial Japan,
which invaded China and colonized Taiwan, make Lee
a much-hated figure for the Chinese side.
China's state-run media, such as Xinhua
News Agency, labeled Lee as "the scum of the
nation" who should be dumped into "the dustbin of
history", after he paid tribute in 2007 at the
Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which is dedicated to
Japanese soldiers including those who died during
World War II. Lee once said that until the age of
22, in 1945 when a defeated Japan had to surrender
Taiwan, he had considered himself to be Japanese.
Lee's elder brother served in the imperial
Japanese army during the World War II and was
killed in the Philippines.
label didn't do much to alter Lee's standing in
Taiwanese society. Now, 11 years after retirement,
he is still respected and remains something of an
uber figure in Taiwan politics. Lee and the
pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) he
founded shortly before he was expelled from the
KMT in September, 2001, supports Tsai Ing-wen, the
opposition Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP's)
presidential candidate for the January 2012
elections. That's why prosecutors now want his
head, say his and Tsai's outraged supporters.
"The Lee Teng-hui indictment is in my mind
unabashedly political," Jerome Keating, a
political commentator and fierce critic of
President Ma Ying-jeou's KMT government, told Asia
Times Online in an interview. "Ma Ying-jeou says
he is removed from the judiciary and will let
justice take its course in a fair and even way;
yet at the same time, he directs his lackeys to do
his bidding and selectively pursue the opposition
with a double standard."
Zhang Baohui, an
expert on East Asian democratization and associate
professor at the Department of Political Science
at Hong Kong's Lingnan University, stands at the
other side of the spectrum of opinion. "I don't
believe that Ma manipulated the judicial system to
pursue private ends. Lee's indictment only
indicates Taiwan's rapid progress in building the
rule of law," Zhang said.
The content of
Lee's indictment, which was brought forward by the
Supreme Prosecutors' Office Special Investigation
Panel (SIP), has been described by the Taiwanese
media and is paraphrased as follows.
the mid-1990s, as a pertinent example of a
phenomenon called "check-book diplomacy" under
which Taipei sought to convince United Nations
member states to recognize Taipei instead of
Beijing as the legitimate government of all of
China, Lee donated US$10.5 million to South
Africa, where Nelson Mandela was president. South
Africa was Taiwan's biggest diplomatic ally at
that time, and Mandela had apparently harbored
plans to turn away.
As the Taiwanese
Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) happened to
suffer from a budget shortfall in those days, the
National Security Bureau (NSB) helped out by
advancing secret diplomatic funds. When at the end
of the decade the MOFA attempted to return the
money, the allegation is that Lee together with an
aide somehow managed to siphon US$7.8 million and
launder it by establishing a think-tank called the
Taiwan Research Institute, which used parts of the
sum to buy luxury offices in downtown Taipei for
both Lee and his aide.
allegations could bring about significant
repercussions. Although the SIP indicated from the
early stages that it won't seek a prison term due
to Lee's age, there is a chance the case could
spin calamitously for the Taiwanese opposition.
Taiwanese media have been speculating that it was
no other than jailed Chen Shui-bian who filed the
complaint that led to Lee's indictment in the
first place. When Chen himself was under
investigation for corruption in 2008, he offered
prosecutors evidence pointing at Lee's involvement
in money laundering, according to reports.
The second direction of speculation is
especially precarious for the DPP. This is because
at the time Lee allegedly committed his crimes,
DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen had been
his close protege.
It has all along been
speculated how the charges themselves could impact
the elections, which are about seven months ahead.
Intriguingly, a closer look at the issue makes it
somewhat doubtable that the KMT could have
calculated that it would easily gain of Lee's
"It is hard to say which side
will benefit," Tsai Chia-hung of the Election
Study Center at Taiwan's National Chengchi
University told Asia Times Online in an interview.
"I think if Tsai Ing-wen is regarded as
responsible for the former government, she would
not have won one million votes in New Taipei City
[in mayoral elections held in November 2010].
"Therefore, it's unlikely that the indictment will
influence what the floating voters think," said
Tsai, acknowledging however that the case may
mobilize hardline supporters of the KMT and the
allied People's First Party (PFP) to some degree.
"Unemployment, house price, education
systems and clean government are major concerns
for the new generation of voters who don't have
stable political attitudes yet. A negative
campaign on previous corruption cases is not a
good idea," Tsai said.
He declined to
comment on the allegations that prosecutors went
against Lee under order of the Ma administration.
By contrast, in the eyes of Lai I-chung,
an executive committee member of Taiwan Thinktank,
a public policy research institution based in
Taipei, there's no doubt that Lee's indictment is
an example of the KMT manipulating the judiciary.
"I believe this tactic by Ma indicates
that Ma would like to fall back on the
traditionally held fundamental voting structure
under which the KMT is supported by 55% of the
population and the DPP by 45%," Lai said.
He elaborated that by going after Lee, Ma
risks the consequences of antagonizing some
voters, particularly in the south, but will
revitalize his deep-blue (Chinese nationalist,
pro-cross-strait unification wings of the KMT and
the PFP) base, which has openly criticized Ma in
the past six months.
Ma recently upset
retired deep-blue generals by urging them to
refrain from visiting China and there also has
been increasing talk of an open rift between Ma
and the PFP. "It seems Ma calculated that he needs
to consolidate his deep-blue base first and then
can rely on that base to rally for him," Lai said.
If Lee's indictment was contrived by the
KMT, it would have been a rather reckless move.
According to local media, KMT legislator Ho
Tsai-feng has warned that the charges against Lee
will mobilize the pan-green camp (DPP and TSU
supporters) who would almost certainly interpret
the indictment as a political maneuver by the Ma
A Taiwanese legislative
aide told Asia Times Online that the Taiwanese
public generally had strong reservations regarding
politicians' integrity. "Although Lee Teng-hui is
the father of Taiwan's democracy, the news hardly
surprises anyone. But of course, if the
investigation comes at this time, people think
it's something the KMT has plotted," the
legislator, who declined to be identified, said.
Lee's indictment isn't likely to be good
for either side. "Lee might be guilty of
corruption; Ma might be guilty of interfering with
the judiciary," the legislator said.
Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based
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